The Shapes of Things Coming, and Going

I’ve been reading a couple of articles recently about the future of the Royal Air Force, having noted the recent appearance of the Envoy IV / Dassault Falcon 900LX in RAF service. It seems that a couple of once familiar shapes will be leaving the RAF, and perhaps earlier than I’d imagined. What their replacements will be, I consider below.

Goodbye Hercules, Hello Atlas

“22 Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft are being procured to replace the Lockheed Hercules C4/C5 (C-130J) which will be withdrawn from service by 2023”

Goodbye then. Really? C-130J Hercules ZH883 arrives at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. The fin marking commemorates the 50th anniversary of the RAF’s first Hercules. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

WHAT? No more Hercules in RAF service? Really? That was quite a surprise. The C-130 has been around forever (almost) and rather like the DC-3/C-47 before it, many people and several air forces thought that the only C-130 replacement was another C-130. The first example I saw was a USAF machine, gleaming in a Natural Metal Finish (or so my memory says) at RAF Mildenhall in 1967. Looking at the commemorative markings on ZH883 above, the first RAF examples must have entered service the year before. Even the replacement C-130J (or Hercules C.4/C.5) is probably best described as “venerable” since it started flying with the RAF in in 1998. Elsewhere in the world the Hercules isn’t going away. The purchase of 22 C-130J models by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has just been approved by Congress in the United States.

So, what’s going on in the United Kingdom? The 14 C-130Js service with the RAF will be made available for sale through the Defence Equipment Sales Authority (DESA) from 2023. I’m sure a few questions are being asked in various quarters, best summed up by a 2021 headline on the Eurasian Times website: “Why Is RAF Hell-Bent On Retiring Its C-130 Hercules Despite Phenomenal Afghan Ops?” A Wikipedia article on the future of the Royal Air Force implied that some top brass in the British Army were “unhappy with the retirement of the Hercules aircraft, due to uncertainty regarding the A400M’s and C-17’s effectiveness in some tactical roles.” A British tabloid said in 2015: “The SAS fight to keep their Hercules planes”. However, despite the alleged feelings of the Army, it seems that RAF high command have fallen in love with the A400M, and so 22 examples, the eight C-17s, (whose production stopped in 2014) and the fourteen Airbus A330 Voyagers (Including ZH336 “Boris Force One”) will be the RAF’s fixed wing haulers in the foreseeable future.

Hello new shape. Airbus A400M Atlas (EC-400) of Airbus Military arrives at the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

So Long Big Dish, Hello Wedgetail

The Boeing E-3 Sentry first flew in 1977, entered RAF service in 1991, and still seems like a recent aircraft to my increasingly aged eyes. That radar dome spinning at 6 revolutions per minute looked incredibly futuristic. I have lived for years under the impression that the E-3 was a derivative of the military C-135, but I am reliably informed (now) that it’s based on the C-137, the military designation for the Boeing 707-320. Boeing turned out 68 examples between 1977 and 1992. Of these, the United States Air Force received 34 – not all of them are active, the RAF had 5, the Royal Saudi Air Force have 5, and the French Armée de l’air et de l’espace have 4. NATO has 18 in its own right based in Luxembourg. However the E-3’s days in British service are well and truly numbered.

RAF E-3D Sentry AEW.1 ZH107 departing Fairford after RIAT 2007 – Image by Rob Schleiffert from Holland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been several upgrades and modifications to the E-3s in service. As the USAF was starting a new upgrade to the “Block 40/45” standard, the RAF were considering a similar upgrade program. However, the considerable cost involved caused the British government to have second thoughts. Consequently the upgrade program was defunded, and the money allocated to a new system instead. In 2019 the Ministry of Defence announced that British Sentries would be replaced by the E-7 Wedgetail by 2023. The last operational flight by an RAF Sentry was supposed to be in July 2021, but the two remaining RAF E-3s were flying patrols in Poland and central Europe in early 2022 monitoring the recent military action by Russia in Ukraine. The other three RAF E-3s were sold to Chile, the first aircraft arriving in late July 2022. One aircraft will be used as a source for spares and two will fly. The two flyers will replace Chile’s EL/M-2075 Phalcon (also known as the EB-707 Condor) which is itself a different-shaped adaptation of a Boeing 707 by Israel Aircraft Industries.

EB-707 Condor of the Chilean Air Force at Pudahuel AFB, Santiago de Chile, September 2010. Photo by Hippocamelus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what’s this Wedgetail? The E-7 Wedgetail AKA the Boeing 737 AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) is, as you may surmise, based on the Next Generation Boeing 737. It was designed for the RAAF under “Project Wedgetail” and this I assume is how the moniker stuck.

A Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail approaches an airborne (USAF) KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, to receive fuel during a mission supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, July 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Wedgetail deliveries began to Australia in 2009. Its first operational use was coordinating patrol aircraft in the search for the missing Malaysian Boeing 777 Flight MH370 in early 2014.

It was assumed that the British would put the matter of replacing the E-3 out to some kind of open bid, but this was not to be. In March 2019 Gavin Williamson (Secretary of State for Defence at the time) announced that the UK had signed a deal with Boeing to buy five Wedgetails. Part of the justification was that the Next Gen 737 airframe would share some compatibility with the 737-based P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. – Both types may share the same base. Cue a certain amount of grumbling from Airbus and Saab who had an alternative product they wanted to sell.

In 2022 it was announced that the British procurement program has slipped to the extent that the Wedgetail will not enter service with the RAF until 2024. Maybe the two remaining Sentries will get to fly a little more.

A Boeing 737 AEW&C of the Turkish Air Force, although note the temporary US Civil registration by the tail, indicating this may be a delivery (or pre-delivery) flight. Location unknown. Photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

There are 14 Wedgetails currently in service with the RAAF, Republic of Korea and Turkish Air Forces. The UAE, Italian Air Force, and Qatar are also lining up to be customers. In April 2022 the USAF announced that its E-3s would be replaced by the Wedgetail / E-7. The American procurement process (and perhaps the line of customers ahead of them) means that the E-7 won’t fly with the USAF until 2027. Who knows what else will be shaping up to enter service by then?